About Sunline Press

Malouf / Camus


An Imaginary Life

Gender in An Imaginary Life

Despite Malouf challenging many conservative aspects of Australian society related to race and cultural differences the novel An Imaginary Life projects a clear division between women and men. The novel never addresses gender as an issue but it is in his representation of women through characterization, imagery and language use (this is ironic as the novel is concerned with the way language constructs reality; a reality at times that disempowers certain groups of people.) that women are relegated to cultural stereotypes. The tale follows the quest of the male hero to achieve enlightenment. Ovid may continually admit his sh0rt-sightedness and strives to accept the ‘Other’, till he finally is able to shed the old civilized self and return to nature, but it is assumed – and certainly shown in the unfolding of the narrative – that he is the only one capable of achieving this because of his gender, intelligence and sensitivity of the poet.

The women are marginal figures in the novel who only come to the fore when the novel needs a villain, an evil force to oppose the good intentions of Ovid in saving the boy. The main female is Ryzak’s mother who remains nameless throughout, asserting her character as a ‘type’ rather than an individual. Her son has a name, her grandson has a name (‘Lullo’) but they are the only characters who do. Ryzak’s mother is associated with magic and darkness, while the men’s connection to a spiritual dimension is constructed in terms of ritual and light. The men, although they are barbaric in Ovid’s eyes, perform their ritual by riding their horses in circles around the funerary mounds, letting out ‘bloodcurdling cries’, but this is acknowledged as exhilarating and having a practical purpose – they are doing this in preparation for the hunt so all the people may eat. In contrast the women’s ritual belong to the dark hours and are hidden away in secret for no one to see or know.

The women gather in a grove, where ‘no man is permitted.’ Their power is associated with the moon, often connected in myth to irrational forces, a supernatural power not of the ordinary world (‘These are the offices of the moon, and belong to the world of women’s power … that are older, more mysterious than the world of men.’ 125)

It is women’s association with dark, supernatural forces – a trope dating back thousands of years – that constructs a representation of women as dangerous and irrational. Men’s power comes from light and the everyday world, but when women have power it is beyond themselves, as if they do not possess power but act as a conduit for other dark forces. This is shown clearly in Ovid’s description of the effect the moon has on women in general and Ryzak’s mother in particular:

‘When the women came back they are silent, still wrapped in whatever power it is that the moon has over them, plucking as it does monthly at the tides of their bodies, swelling in them, waning, brooding over the darkness and transmuting all those things that we know by daylight in its softer, vaguer light.’ (125-6)

In this passage women are represented as vessels that are acted upon by other strange, malevolent forces. They do not possess a self that is constant and whole, instead they are transformed into some other darker being. The image  alludes to menstruation – an aspect of women’s lives seen in many cultures as mysterious, unclean and a reason for isolating them, and a sign of their ‘otherness’ – reiterating the power of the moon in numerous verbs that suggest the way their bodies are altered. The representation of the female body is an archaic stereotype as body in opposition to reason and goodness. Females are inconstant, fickle, mutable figures. The male world of light is darkened by the moon’s (and correspondingly women’s) ‘softer, vaguer light.’

These women are dangerous as they are acting beyond the limits of patriarchal power as they are no longer under control of men but by supernatural forces or nature, itself as a unpredictable force.

Since the early Greeks men have been aligned with the mind, reason and culture and the female the body, emotion and nature. In a mind/body dualism where the body is merely the crude container of the mind it is clear that women have been constructed not just as a lesser form of human but subject to physical change and volatility. Woman as ‘other’ is inferior but also unknowable, enigmatic and disquieting. These archaic stereotypes are visible in this passage where women are prisoners to their bodies: they are susceptible to forces that threatened rational behaviour.

Ryzak fears this power and Ovid observes that he ‘holds less sway over the village than he would have me believe ... Behind his male prerogative, established in law, lies the darker power of the women... (his mother) has a strange ascendency over him ... he is scared of her magic.’ The shaman, of course, has a similar power and Ryzak also fears him but the text focuses solely on the disruptive power of women’s magic and the male shaman remains on the periphery but his power is nevertheless never constructed in the lesser ‘magic’ but in ‘spiritual’ terms.

Women are relegated to the marginal realm in both the worlds of  Tomis and in Ovid’s memories of Rome (‘This is a woman’s world, which I will never know again. It smells of soapsuds and dough’) while the men control matters of greater significance in their worlds. This clearly accords with the social reality of the time and makes the novel creditable, however, it is the way a writer represents men and women - what is included or omitted, the language used, construction of character - that offers an unseen politics and set of values within a text. In An Imaginary Life gender may not be addressed as an issue but in Malouf’s narrative men’s power is naturalised while women with power are demonic forces, manipulative and cunning.


The novel explores the way language constructs our view of the world. Language is not a transparent medium in which we simply name and describe reality, but is influential in constructing our attitudes to the world. Embedded in language are assumptions, hierarchical relationships and values to everything we observe or fail to see.

In An Imaginary Life the narrator is the famous Roman poet, Ovid, a master of language who is exiled into a land where he can no longer communicate through his language. He laments this loss initially, constantly referring to the innate superiority and civilisation within his own language, Latin. The language of the Getae is shown as ‘barbarous, and my own soul aches for the refinements of our Latin tongue, that perfect tongue in which all things can be spoken...’ (21). However, he learns that he must be willing to change and be transformed. It is this transformation and self-discovery that is at the core of the novel, and it is language that is the catalyst for his initial change. Moreover it is his exile in a land where he can no longer accept the world on his own terms that has made him re-see the world and evidenced when he sees the scarlet poppy: ‘Poppy, you have saved me.... All my life till now has been wasted. I had to enter the silence to find a password that would release me from my own life. (32)

Learning the language of the Getae is the next step that helps Ovid in seeing the world differently. He acknowledges that he has changed - ‘What a different self has begun to emerge in me!’(65). He had always held himself above the Getae, believing them barbarians, but he soon realises that it is himself and his frivolous life before that lacked meaning. Latin is now seen as discriminatory, a language ‘whose endings are designed to express difference’ 65, instead the Getic language presents a new world to Ovid: ‘what it presents is the raw life and unity of things. Seeing the world through this other tongue I see if differently. It is a different world. Somehow it seems closer to the first principle of creation, closer to whatever force it is that makes things what they are ..’ (65)

It is this rawness of life and unity that Ovid mores towards in his journey. He transcends his old self, the one that was once famous and civilised, that he now realises was an ignorant, materialistic way of living life, and this could never be achieved until he is sent into exile and needs to learn the world anew, using the language of the Getae.

The title of the novel suggests it is the imagination that is essential to free oneself. ‘We are bound not by the laws of our nature but by the ways we can imagine ourselves breaking out of those laws.’(67) One of the ways of connecting with the imagination, or the spirit, is first to free ourselves from the world that is a linguistic construct, however it is just another step. Ovid needs to regain the language that he and the child spoke when he was a young boy in Sulmo. This earlier language was one that went beyond words. It is this move towards silence that the novel traces.

The novel investigates this language by exploring the way the Child communicates. His idea of the self is quite different to Ovid. The notion of the self outside the external reality is suggested to be a construct of our society and language. We see ourselves as individuals who displace air and move separately form the universe, yet in the Child’s world he seems to be a part of Nature and the universe.


p. 67
Despite the rhetoric of freedom, the claims that we are individuals in control of our destinies, we are still controlled by all those socially constructed ways of seeing the self and the world around us. We are not free as we are living out the narratives of identity that are tied to gender, nation, race, class. Malouf is suggesting by Ovid’s comment ‘We are bound both by the laws of our nature but by the ways we can imagine ourselves breaking out of those laws’, that it is the imagination that will allow us to transcend these constructs, to find something within that is in essence the self stripped clean of these restraints.

At no time in the novel does Malouf clearly define what he means by imagination (it is a novel after all) but his beliefs are clearly predicated upon the existence of a ‘deep self’; an inner spirituality that might be lost in a world consumed by materialism yet can be woken if taken out of this world where the self is left to re-examine the very essence of their being; that social conditioning can be transcended; and the belief that Nature is a source of this awakening.

The representation of Nature is based on assumptions that privilege Nature as a life-force rather than a static setting. This representation also colludes with an ideology that constructs humans as individuals who can only find fulfilment by leaving the city and facing their fears and themselves in an environment that in itself is imbued with values that support the individual who can find meaning by being confronted with the supernatural power of Nature.

The novel acknowledges the force of scoiety, language and culture as determinants of self, yet beyond this is a natural source from which our true self derives.


Psyche (myth)
Metamorphosis (Ovid’s book)
How does language shape reality?

How does language shape reality?

‘All my life till now has been wasted. I had to enter the silence to find a password that would release me from my own life.’ (32)

‘Our bodies are not final.’ (29)

‘We are bound not by the laws of our nature but by the ways we can imagine ourselves breaking out of those laws.’(67)

‘Slowly I begin the final metamorphosis. I must drive out my old self and let the universe in.’ (96)

‘Our further selves are contained within us, as the leaves and blossoms are in the tree. We have only to find the spring and release it.’ (64)

‘What else should our lives be but a continual series of beginnings ... ‘ (135)

‘what it presents is the raw life and unity of things. Seeing the world through this other tongue I see if differently. It is a different world. Somehow it seems closer to the first principle of creation, closer to whatever force it is that makes things what they are ..’ (65)

Year 11 Literature Assignment An Imaginary Life 

1. ‘Language is not a transparent medium in which we simply name and describe reality, but is influential in constructing our attitudes to the world.’ Discuss this idea in relation to the novel.

2. ‘What should our lives be but a continual series of beginnings, of painful settings out into the unknown, pushing off from the edges of consciousness into the mystery of what we have not yet become ...’ Discuss what is meant by this quotation with close reference to the novel.

3.Discuss the significance of symbolism or narrative point of view or setting to your understanding of the novel.

4. It is interesting to notice the way cultural identity is constructed in the novel: the sophisticated Roman civilisation is equated with alienation, while the barbaric Getae are seen to be more in harmony with themselves and Nature.’ Discuss if you agree with this assessment of the novel by investigating the construction of cultural identity in An Imaginary Life.

Year 11 Literature Cross Level An Imaginary Life

1. ‘Our further selves are contained withiin us, as the leaves and blossoms are in the tree.’ Discuss the novel in the light of this quotation.


2. The novel is a symbolic journey from the constricting world of comfort and knowledge to the wonder and freedom of shedding everything.’ Discuss An Imaginary Life in the light of this comment.

Year 11 Literature Cross Level An Imaginary Life 

1. ‘From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity’ (Edvard Munch). Discuss the novel in the light of this quotation.


2. An Imaginary Life is a novel that traces Ovid’s passage from alienated Roman poet in exile to spiritual and psychological wholeness. Discuss with close reference to the novel.

Year 11 Literature Cross Level An Imaginary Life 

‘It it only those who get lost in the forest or walk in heat haze of desert who learn who they are, who learn that the wilderness is not separate.’ Discuss this quotation in relation to the main ideas explored in An Imaginary Life.

Year 11 Literature Assignment An Imaginary Life 

1. Discuss how the narrative point of view or symbolism or setting contributes to a reader’s understanding of many of the central concerns in An Imaginary Life.

2. ‘Language is never neutral but carries within it, within the cultural meanings embedded, a way of seeing the world.’ Discuss this statement with close reference to the novel.

3. The novel is yet another self-discovery narrative where the protagonist comes to a greater understanding of his place in the world. Do you agree that it should be dismissed as lightly as this or does the novel achieve something greater? Discuss with close reference to the novel.

4. ‘We are free to transcend ourselves. If we have the imagination for it.’ Discuss the novel main ideas in reference to this quotation.

‘Meursault is a monster’. Discuss.

Some critics may believe that Meursault’s callous indifference to the lives around him make him inhuman and, in turn, a monster. The shooting of another human being and showing no sign of remorse may also be seen as evidence of his monstrous nature, yet the novel clearly shows that this man is honest in all his dealings with the world. The novel also goes to great lengths to reveal the hypocrisy that exist in society, showing that people act more out of appearances and what society expects to act than ever being true to themselves.

It is true that Meursault is guilty of murder and if this makes a monster then Meursault can be classified as a monster. However, the society that condemns him as a monster do so not for this act, but because he fails to behave within the socially prescribed roles of grieved son at his mother’s funeral, obeying a period of mourning and not taking out a girl to a comedy and having sex the following day, and for his general refusal to ‘play the game’. This last point entails showing respect for authority, showing remorse for actions that society deems bad, and in believing in God, or at least saying you believe.

The Outsider

The Outsider questions the attitudes and assumptions of Western morality systems. In particular it explores and in turn undermines Western notions of love, God, honesty, judicial systems and truth.

Meursault is sentenced to death more for his unwillingness to show remorse for the killing, for not crying at his mother’s funeral, for watching a Fernandel film and sleeping with a girl on the day following his mother’s death, for not believing in God and failing to make up excuses for the shooting. In short he is condemned for not ‘playing the game’. Camus clearly criticises the hypocritical and duplicitious nature of society by revealing the absurd logic upon which the law court operates while apparently presuming its procedures rational, logical and fair. The ‘game’ in one way is not seen as a game by many people. It is their system of ethics, beliefs and ways of behaving and understanding the world. This can also be explained as the ideology operating in Western society, where people have internalised these beliefs so that they are natural and right.

It is this very value system which is criticised as Camus foregrounds the assumptions underlying these beliefs. Honesty and truth are espoused as cornerstones of Christianity and the law courts, yet it is shown that total honesty is not valued. It is easy to put across a facade of concern, sympathy and regret and it is this outer image that determines how a person is judged. Meursault refuses to do it, not for any ethical or philosophical reason but because that is how he feels and act. Meursault is not consciously being an existentialist, he would probably refute acting according to any philosophy, however he is used by Camus to put across the existentialist view.

Meursault does not cry at his mother’s funeral and openly says that he is not distraught; the most he can say is that ‘The only thing I could say for certain was that I’d rather she hadn’t died.’ It is this type of honesty that makes him appear inhuman in the eyes of other people and the first step in being labelled a ‘monster’. Considering he was not truly close to his mother and she had lived a long life this does not seem too callous, however society demands that an individual show emotion and feel saddened by the loss of a mother. It is the values of society that constructs role that should be followed, rather than acting as you honestly feel. Meursault’s subsequent visit to a Fernandel film and his sexual liasion with Marie on the night after his mother’s death are also castigated and labelled the actions of an insensitive monster. For a society that values logic and reason in judging people this seems absurd as these events are independent to the later murder, but the law courts use this as damning evidence. Society believes that there is cause-effect relationship in every action, and that there is a motive. However, Camus clearly shows that this logic does not really govern people’s lives. The reasons for things cannot always be neatly explained. When asked for the reason for the murder Meursault cannot give a clear, logical reason as it just happened, however when forced he says it was the ‘sun’. This appears absurd to the court which demands human motives such as jealousy, hatred, self-gain or at least self-defense. Meursault could have easily pretended other attenuating circumstances and exaggerated the threat that the Arab posed, but these were not the real reasons, so he can only remember the oppressive heat of the sun and something that made him act like that at that moment. This type of honesty is unacceptable to the court and gives them more reason to label him a danger to society.

The text celebrates the actions of Meursault in regard to his refusal to conform to society’s values. The actual murder of the Arab is not supported, but it is shown as an action that may just happen if one is put in those circumstances. It is his honesty and his unwillingness to lie or pretend something that he does not truly feel that is shown as admirable. Had he broken down and said he believed in God or shown remorse and created reasons for the murder he would have been saved, however he remains firm to ‘his’ truth throughout (which is existential authenticity) till finally in an outburst caused by the chaplain he articulates his way of life.

Throughout the novel the line ‘It doesn’t really matter’ recurs numerous times. It refers to his life after his mother’s death, the idea of love and choice of life. As he says people get ‘used to anything’ and happiness can be achieved either way. This is implied throughout the novel, but in the final scene Meursault articulates this belief as a way of life. He accuses the chaplain of ‘living like a dead man’ and that his certainties meant nothing. Meursault was the one who was sure of his beliefs (‘But I wa sure of myself, sure of everything, surer than he was, sure of my life and sure of the death that was coming to me.’), and had followed his beliefs faithfully throughout his life (like the existential belief that the individual chooses their way of life and lives accordingly). His way of life was outside mainstream values but this didn’t make it less worthwhile, in fact because he lived his life fully and truly it was far better: ‘I’d lived a certain way and I could just as well have lived it in a different way. I’d done this and I hadn’t done that ... So what? ...Nothing, nothing mattered and I knew very well why.’

Meursault is in conflict with society for a numbe rof reassons. The one cnetral evemt that propels him into conflict is his killing of an Arab. However, it is the mothis act per se that results in his punishemnt - itis his values and attitudes to society. He fails to shows that he is a compliant citizen who is willing to obey its ways of behaviour, laws, moral and ethical codes; more importamtly it is his failure to play the game’, his unwillingness to shows remorse and grief. In many ways it is his innate honestly to pretned that these things matter, that there were extenuatung circumstances, psychologiccal explanbations.


The story from the newsclipping portrays the tragic irony of life - a lost son returns rich to help his family only to be killed by them. It may show the terrible things people are willing to do to be rich and the reasons may be rational: they needed the money, but in the end the whole situation had been governed by chance, an idea repeated through the novel. Meursault says that it was ‘chance’ that he was on the beach at the time, that it was chance that he held the gun, and the same things have determined the son being there, showing the money and deciding not to share his identity immediately. It also shows M’s indifference to the universe in that he says ‘that the traveller had deserved it really and that you should never play around’, as there are so many things that will go against you in life without letting chance intervene more. It also shows his insistence on being honest as the man had not been honest and the result was tragic.

[- Execute('footer.html'); -]